Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Haiti faces colossal and costly cleanup before it can rebuild

By William Booth, Washington Post Foreign Service

Before Haiti and international donors can rebuild this devastated city, they must first destroy it.

The task of knocking down, smashing apart and hauling away the mountain range of rubble left by the Jan. 12 earthquake will take years and cost as much as $1 billion, according to some estimates.

“I have heard the president say that based on what the engineers tell him, it will take 1,000 dump trucks working for 1,000 days to clear away the debris, and I am not sure even the experts know how big is the pile,” said Leslie Voltaire, an architect and diplomat who is leading the effort to plan Haiti’s reconstruction.

What the experts do know is that the rubble is very heavy and very much in the way. U.N. rapid assessment teams estimate that the 245,000 ruined or hopelessly damaged structures in Haiti will produce 30 million to 78 million cubic yards of broken blocks, twisted metal and pulverized concrete — enough to fill the Louisiana Superdome, from playing field to roof, up to 17 times.

U.S. contractors with experience clearing Baghdad after bombings and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina recognize that there are fortunes to be made moving Haiti’s debris from point A to point B. They are scrambling to partner with local construction firms to secure access to workers and heavy equipment and to align themselves with the Haitian business leaders who have connections to the government and the international donor consortiums that will write the big checks. When Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva met recently with Haiti’s president, René Préval, the two discussed rubble removal and what Brazilian companies could offer, according to a participant in the meeting.

Préval might have been overly optimistic about the 1,000 days. If a Mack truck can haul about nine cubic yards of concrete debris, the cleanup could require as many as 8 million trips — through the snarl of downtown Port-au-Prince’s narrow streets to the still-nonexistent dumps and recycling centers at the city’s edge.

“How long did it take to remove the twin towers after 9/11? It took them two years, and that was in New York City, and it cost a lot of money. We are Port-au-Prince, and our government doesn’t have any money,” said Philippe Cineas, director general of Haiti Blocs, a concrete-block maker and construction company that has cleared rubble from five sites, including a bank “where we had to work very slowly, very carefully, because they were looking for the vault.”

The heavy lifting of rubble removal — what a U.N. task force dedicated to the job prefers to call “debris management” — has barely begun, but it already offers a glimpse of the colossal effort the project will entail. One engineering consultant here likened it to “unbuilding the Pyramids.”

The Haitian government, using funds from the international community, has targeted only a handful of sites, beginning with schools, hospitals and public offices where large numbers of people might be buried. It has also begun to topple a few larger, listing buildings that are in danger of sudden collapse. Some private companies and individuals have paid to have debris cleared in order to get back to work or to recover the dead. Only a few homeowners have started to dig out.

“How can I take down my house?” asked Oliver Chaumont, whose two-story hand-built concrete-block home appeared to have folded down around him. Chaumont was living with his extended family and some chickens in the back yard. “It will take big machines to lift all this heavy rock,” he said, “and big money.”

Little guys like him, with wheelbarrows and shovels, cannot do it by themselves, he said, as much as they would like to get started.

At La Source school, across the street from the ruins of the Sacre Coeur church, a huge Komatsu excavator was crawling one recent day atop an unstable hilltop of concrete slabs, its tracks sliding on the steep grade, to pick apart the building with its extended claw. Work stopped abruptly when the operator came upon a six-week-old corpse, which the workers dragged to the sidewalk on a sled made of corrugated tin, their shirts wrapped around their mouths and noses. As pedestrians scurried past the body, the burrowing, scooping and lifting resumed.

The red-eyed foreman, covered in white dust, said his crews had filled 38 trucks on this day, and he estimated that removing all the rubble at the school site would take 15 days or more. “It’s a lot of hard work,” he said.

In a city of rubble, the king is the man with the Caterpillar excavators, and in Port-au-Prince that man is Reynold Bonnefil, president of Haytian Tractor & Equipment Co. Sitting in his office, his three cellphones blipping and purring on his desk, Bonnefil pondered the question: How many excavators are there in Haiti?

“Not enough!” he shouted, and smiled. “You always need more.”

Bonnefil said there are maybe 150 excavators, tops, in the whole country, counting new and used. He said his firm controls 90 percent of the market, though he expected it would soon have lots of company. Excavators are not cheap. An Internet search for used Caterpillar and Case excavators for sale in the eastern Caribbean found the workhorse models priced at $124,000 to $240,000 each, plus shipping and customs duties.

Bonnefil said he has fielded calls from at least 10 U.S. construction companies, “all looking to buy or rent heavy equipment.” On his desk, he has a picture of himself with former president Bill Clinton, special U.N. envoy to Haiti and a leader in the reconstruction efforts.

“I am told that they are working on a package that will cost $1 billion,” Bonnefil said, to be funded by a combination of donors and financing that might include the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank. Dismantling a single large building can cost $20,000 to $80,000, he said. Many such decisions will be made leading up to a crucial U.N.-led donor conference this month.

“It’s not cheap,” Bonnefil said, pointing out that the work can be technical and dangerous, posing risks to lives, machinery and neighboring structures. “But you must remove the rubble before you can do anything else.”

What will be done with the debris is under discussion. Twisted metal rebar can be salvaged and recycled but should not be reused because it is weak. Concrete blocks can be reused for pathways and retaining walls, and for new construction. They can also be crushed and sifted to be used for fill — to build jetties, roads and levees or to extend the port. But there are no machines for such jobs in Haiti.

Not yet.

Bonnefil waved a catalogue that had been lying on his desk.

“Crushers,” he said.

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